Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Prime Sleeper for 2012
What went wrong?:
It’s like a fill-in-the-blanks movie script in which the protagonist experiences a horrific downward spiral, and isn’t quite sure how he hit rock bottom. The Buccaneers in 2010 came within striking distance of the playoffs, going 10-6 and needing other teams to lose on the last day of the regular season. Unfortunately for them, Green Bay claimed the last available wild card spot, and went on to make the most of it.
But Tampa had a lot to be happy about. They were coming of a 3-13 year in 2009, and Josh Freeman proved to be a franchise quarterback in 2010 (25 TD, 6 INT, 3,451 yards, 95.9 rating). LeGarrette Blount was a breakthrough star at running back, putting up 1000 yards and 6 touchdown rushes after going undrafted. The defense allowed less than twenty points a game, and put up three pick-sixes (including one from Aqib Talib, who had six total interceptions for the year).
In fact, things started out fine in 2011. After a close win over the Saints on October 16, the Bucs went to 4-2. The Bears upended them a week later, sending Tampa into the bye week at 4-3.
They would never recover.
The Buccaneers would lose their next nine games out of the bye week. The last ten losses were largely one-sided affairs; only three of them were by ten points or less. The average margin of defeat was 17.5 points. Tennessee in Week 12 put up the lowest total of the ten teams who defeated Tampa: 23 points.
The Buccaneers allowed 34.9 points per game during their ten straight losses; a far cry from the 19.9 they averaged for the year in 2010.
Freeman came crashing back to earth during this nightmare. His stat line was nowhere near as pristine as his previous season; only his passing yards increased (3,592). Everything else dropped off: 16 TD, 22 INT, for a 74.6 rating. Freeman threw 16 of those picks in those last ten games, versus 11 touchdowns.
As Freeman suffered, the offense suffered. Blount dropped from 5.0 yards a carry in 2010 to 4.2 in 2011. Once-trusty back-up Earnest Graham only played in seven games, putting more of a burden on Blount’s physical style (Blount missed two games).
As for the defense’s suffering, having a rookie at middle linebacker diagnose the plays after the exit of the time-tested Barrett Ruud will account for some of the drop-off. Mason Foster put up good numbers in the middle with 84 tackles and 2 sacks, but he was in a tough spot at the heart of the D, and the rushing defense numbers (156 yards per game in 2011, 132 in 2010) got worse as the season wore on.
What have they done to fix it?:
Has any head coach ever lost the last ten games of a season and kept his job? Well, besides the ones that are brought in to fix 1-15 squads?
Head coach Raheem Morris was fired along with the entire coaching staff. In Morris’ place, Tampa hired Rutgers coach Greg Schiano, whose college tenure peaked in 2006, when he led the Scarlet Knights to an 11-2 record, and a blowout win over Kansas State in the Texas Bowl.
Among the restaffing of coaches in Tampa is new offensive coordinator Mike Sullivan, who coached the Giants’ wide receivers and quarterbacks over the previous six seasons, which includes two Super Bowl titles. It was his work with Eli Manning over the past two seasons that is credited for getting the most of out of a now-two-time Super Bowl MVP.
When Schiano was first hired, his mandate was to instill discipline among the ranks, and he’s making good on his word. After OTAs, veteran Ronde Barber was quick to note the difference between Schiano and Morris, as Morris was a laid-back “players coach”, whereas Schiano has no problem making demands of his players. Aqib Talib has gone as far as to call it night-and-day from Morris’ final year, when players were going through the motions, and it showed.
Not on Schiano’s watch.